Just what is the meaning of the four beasts — the man, the lion, the bull and the eagle — whether in the Book of the Apocalypse or as used by early and medieval Christian artists? The question is not hard to answer. In the first place the Book of Revelation was written by a Qabbalist, a student of the early, not the late Qabbalah. It was edited or touched up at a later date by a Christian editor. No one knows what he took out, what he kept in, but it was given a more Christian coloring, and if you will read chapter four you will see that it mentions these four beasts "full of eyes within," who proclaimed truth and unsealed seals, and they are stated to have encompassed the throne of the Hierarch.
Whether the early Christians ascribed the same meaning to these four 'beasts' of the Apocalypse that the Hindus ascribed to what they called their four guardians of the world, is a question. The Hindu conception even today is incomparably vaster and more spiritual and mystical than is the strongly anthropomorphic picture presented in the Christian book of Revelation. These four guardians, called the four Loka-palas, were by exoteric explanation attributed respectively to the North, the East, the South, and the West, and hence by those who did not understand the inner meaning, they were called the guardians of the four quarters. The public took the husk of the explanation and left the meat, the bread of the grain of truth.
These four governors of the world represent not so much single entities but hierarchies of divinities, each guardian inaugurating the beginning of manifested life in our world. When its duty is done, the second guardian or Loka-pala takes up the task which is passed on to it. Then like the bearer of a torch in a torch-race, the torch of responsibility is handed on to the next runner. When the second guardian has finished his work, the torch, the duty, is passed to the third; from it to the fourth, and the cycle is ended! Destiny has been expended, has been written in the Book of Life by the divine recorders. And the next great period of manifestation will see these four protectors springing anew into spiritual and intellectual activity.
The early Christians were fascinated by this abstract and truly divine conception. But they found it difficult to explain. The four beasts were really representations or symbols of the divinities: the soaring eagle, the thinking man, the bull of strength, and the lion of courage — symbols of qualities. The symbolic concept was later forgotten, and the four animals were then simply painted by medieval Christian artists as symbols of the four Evangels who wrote the Gospels, because the early Church taught that in the four Gospels was the Word of God. The Word of God is the law of the universe, and therefore in these four Gospels are the four laws of being, the four divine laws — the four beasts still later coming merely to symbolize the four gospels of early Christian teaching; and the original, almost the divine meaning was lost.
Nature is spiritually generated and spiritually governed, and in so far as the divine law can have its way on this earth of matter and can control the affairs of men, it does so in four stages: the birth or the beginning, technically called the North, the divine birth; adolescence or the sunrise, called the East; full maturity of spirit and power in manhood, called the South, governed by the Lord of Death; and the fourth, the West, the Land of Shades, the Land of the Great Passing.
The ancients also celebrated four holy seasons in the wheeling of the year: the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. First comes the Great Birth, the winter — the birth of the sun when he first begins to reassume his powers of light, when his journey to the South is over, and he begins to retrace his journey back to the North. And then comes Adolescence at the spring equinox, when the laws of life and light begin magically to work on the earth. Trees burgeon, flowers spring forth, Nature begins to sing with the new elements of life coursing through her veins. And in the summertime comes the great trial which a man always undergoes in maturity and full power of his strength, determining whether he goes up or down; for in the summertime likewise the fruits are ready for the harvest. Grain has been cut and stored. Nature is rich and powerful, overflowing with her exuberance of vitality. And then comes the fourth sacred season, that of the autumn equinox, when the sun seems to take leave of the northern regions and pursues his journey southward. The days shorten, the nights lengthen, chills come upon the earth, the leaves fall, the sap retreats from twig, leaf, branch, and stock, into the roots. Rest comes and peace. And this was called the season of the Great Passing.
Thus, the ancients taught that the spiritual life which governs our world has its day of birth, has its day of adolescence, has its day of full material power and strength, has its day of passing, to begin anew the same cycle, let us hope on a somewhat higher plane. Year follows year and season follows season, the cycles come and the cycles go. But the divine endures forever.
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The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern — unseen before —
A path to higher destinies,
Nor deem the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain
— Longfellow, The Ladder of Saint Augustine